Tuesday, November 27, 2012


The greatness of the Swiss cultural and art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1918-97) is unquestionable. Splendid are even his lesser works, like the Weltgeschichtlische Betrachtungen, whose English translation, Reflections on History, I don’t possess. From time to time I dip into the original, as I did the other day, when his thoughts on music caught my eye. Some of this I translate herewith.

“Its [music’s] effect is (i.e., in the right instances) so great and direct that the feeling of gratitude immediately seeks out the creator and coincidentally proclaims his greatness. The great composers belong among the undisputed geniuses. More questionable is their perpetuity. It depends in the first place on the ever renewed efforts of posterity, to wit performances, which must compete with performance of all subsequent and (each time) contemporary works, while other arts can display their products once and forever; and depends in the second place on the survival of our tone system and rhythm, which is not everlasting. Mozart and Beethoven may become for a future mankind as incomprehensible as might now be to us the Greek music so highly praised by its contemporaries. They will remain great on credit, on the enthusiastic say-so of our times, like, say, the painters of antiquity, whose works have been lost.”

Which makes me wonder: am I that postulated man of the future who has no use for Mozart and Beethoven—and throw in for good measure Bach and all others before the coming of the Romantics, Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz and the rest. I have a huge collection of CDs, but nothing before circa 1827. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven (yes, even the vaunted late sonatas and quartets) are anathema to me.

Now all you music lovers may ask, as did once a minor conductor of my acquaintance, “Do you then not love music?” But, of course, I do, only I start closer to home. And I proceed to many a composer, even little-known ones (see my book John Simon on Music), up to some of the more recent abominations, e.g., Pärt, Penderecki, Gorecki, Cage, Stockhausen, Glass, Reich and their likes, but not including the Messiaen of Quartet for the End of Time, a good deal of Henze, and some of Thomas Adès. And I love such slightly earlier composers as Frank Martin, Barber, Britten, Lutosławski and Dutilleux.

Who, though, are my desert island composers, my necessaries? Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and a bunch of other Frenchmen, but not Saint-Saëns and Lalo, and only some of Milhaud. Certainly Satie and Poulenc, and Bartók and Kodály, Berg and Stravinsky and early Schoenberg, the wonderful Janáček and Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and some other Slavs and Central Europeans, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, and a couple of other Brits (but Elgar only for the Cello Concerto), and yes, the delightful Nino Rota. Also Latinos like Falla, Villa Lobos, Guarnieri and the superb Montsalvatge. And still others—check out, I say again, John Simon on Music. 

The late Alan Rich, who loved to disagree with me, wondered how I could publish a whole book on music and mention Mozart only once, and even that in a quotation from someone else. My answer: Easily. Here again is Burckhardt on music: “Now it is fantastic mathematics—and now again all soul [lauter Seele], infinitely distant and yet intimately close.” Well yes: I don’t like it when it is merely fantastic mathematics, or, rather, geometry, governed by the kind of rules that make a square: four equal sides. Such, for me, is Mozart: one bar pretty much replicates the next three or more. (You are free to call me anything uncomplimentary you choose.) Repetition or near-repetition is to me one of the curses of pre-1927 music. A Bard College female student of mine once admonished, “Be charitable, John, toward mathematicians. They are failed poets.”

Failed poets—that covers for me (I keep stressing, for me) those earlier composers. Whereas something like the Janáček Sinfonietta or the Third Piano Concerto of Bartók or Prokofiev—that is poetry set free. It can be achieved even by somewhat lesser composers, say, Tcherepnin, Franz Schmidt (his Fourth Symphony), or much of Dohnanyi. And certainly by Hindemith, Honegger and Hahn, to name only a few H’s. (But not, of course, Handel, Haydn—though preferable to Mozart—or that ghastly Vivaldi.)

But what about failed poetry? Are the poets of earlier eras uninteresting? Certainly not. To say nothing of Shakespeare, a genius for all ages, but also Wyatt, Skelton, Donne, Marvell, Rochester, Prior, Pope, and a lot of others, to mention only early Brits. Still, my great passions are for later poets: MacNeice, Ransom, Cummings, and especially Robert Graves; also the Jameses, Dickey and Wright. Non-Anglos? Apollinaire, Mallarmé, Valéry, Prévert, Queneau, Celan, Rilke, George, Hofmannsthal, Kastner, Lenau, Morike, Storm, Morgenstern, Cavafy, Ritsos, Montale, and those amazing Hungarians: Ady, József, Babits, Kosztolányi, Illyés, Pilinszky and Radnóti, and one Serb, Vasko Popa. See my Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry.
But back to music, and Burckhardt’s “all soul.”  What exactly is soul in music? I can readily point to it in, say, the piano music and melodies of Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, to name only Frenchmen; in operas like, among others, Otello, Falstaff, Wozzeck, Lulu, Bluebeard’s Castle, The Fiery Angel, Jenufa, Vanessa, Ariadne auf Naxos, Salome, Pelléas et Mélisande; in symphonic music by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Stravinsky, to name only Russians.

But define it? I defy anyone to do so. I can only say that it is what moves me, stirs up my insides, would make me sing or hum it if I knew how. What, in a Hungarian phrase, crawls (caressingly) into the ear. What makes me forget my worries, my inadequacies, my mortality. What makes me want to hear it again and again. And what reinforces my love for my wife, even though her music is very different from mine.

Finally, what are certain works at least part of which elicit a swoon of ecstasy, that could sustain me in the dire case of all other music being lost? And let us assume that I’m allowed no more than a baker’s dozen.

So here, in no particular order, are fourteen sublime works by thirteen composers: Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto and Souvenirs ballet, Ibert’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Harp, Mompou’s song cycle Combat del somne, Montsalvatge’s Lullaby for a Small Negro Boy, Martin’s Concerto for 7 Winds and Strings, Mahler’s Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony, Debussy’s La plus que lente, Ravel’s ballet L’Enfant et les sortileges, Kodály’s Approaching Spring (Közelítő Tél) for baritone and orchestra, Bartók’s Second Suite for Orchestra, Sallinen’s opera The Red Line, Britten’s Peter Grimes, and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (I cite the works that include the beloved passages). However, I do hope it will never come down to no more than that.

Monday, November 12, 2012


On October 25, 2012, at the riper than ripe age of 104, Jacques Barzun died in San Antonio, where he and his wife had been living for the last 16 years. On the following November 5, at the age of 103, the composer Elliott Carter died in his West Village home. Two veterans, creative in their wheelchairs to the very last, departed within a few days from each other.
I can’t really speak about Carter, since I know only a small part of his music, and do not care for all of that. Moreover, I did not know the man, whereas I knew Barzun, mostly from the Mid-Century Book Society, the second book club he headed with W.H. Auden and Lionel Trilling, the first having been the Readers’ Subscription.

At the Mid-Century, I was associate editor and in charge of the magazine, in which books offered to the members were reviewed by the editors, and later an occasional guest as well. And, pretty regularly, I. Of course, one had to, in both senses of the word, sell these books; but that was neither too hard nor dishonest, given that they were really good books we all liked. Some of them were even suggested by me, e.g., the Ford Madox Ford trilogy, Parade’s End.

It fell to me to edit that illustrious triumvirate for the magazine, a very different task with each writer. Auden, who was jovially insouciant, handed in smart but sloppy stuff that needed a lot of editing, which he readily and gratefully accepted. Trilling was more difficult. Always by telephone, one went over proposed changes, some of which, after some discussion, he accepted, some not.

Barzun, however, one was not allowed to edit. Everything, down to the last comma, had to be left as it was, even where—admittedly seldom—improvement was possible. At the other end of the phone, I could conjure up my interlocutor. He was undoubtedly smiling that frosty smile of his, one part convivial and two parts condescending. Since he was tall, when delivered in person, the smile would literally descend upon you, accompanying an elegant diction that itself had a sort of
smile in it.

His figure and posture were excellent, and he wore his well-tailored clothes with an aura more diplomatic than academic. His accent was upper-class American, without a trace of his French childhood. I always wanted to address him in French, to hear how he would sound in that language, but I lacked the guts to do so.

Even though, with rare exceptions, he spurned what I would call human warmth, his eyes had an encouraging glitter when the conversation was about one art or another—or history, or philosophy—which, in my presence, it almost always was. It could, had I shared his interest, also have been baseball. Often, though, it was about the art of correct and appropriate language, which was one of his passions, and about which, happily, we were of the same opinion.

I had not then and, I’m ashamed to say, even now read most of his books, not really even those I owned. The two-volume Berlioz never even left my bookshelf before I sold it along with a number of my books, all of which I regrettably came to miss.

Barzun was not, like Auden, someone to feel warmly about, but he certainly was one to respect. Thus about his steadily ex cathedra utterances, which one could not help admiring. (Incidentally, it was he who taught me that “could not help but” was redundant.)

He was always, like Auden, reciprocally respectful of me—which Trilling never overtly was, although he several times said he envied my wardrobe. Here is Barzun’s blurb for my book Singularities:

            Not because he is violent in expression but
            because he feels strongly and thinks clearly
            about drama, about art and about conduct,
            I think John Simon’s criticism extremely
            important and a pleasure to read. And by
            the way, who has decreed that violence
            in a playwright is splendid and violence
            in a critic unforgivable?

So my admiration for Barzun the writer, thinker, critic and wit is boundless, but I wish I could feel the same for the man. During his 15 years at Scribners as a sort of editorial adviser, he invited me to lunch once. He chose a nearby but cheap and inferior restaurant, called I believe Captain Nemo’s. Came the bill and Barzun, who was wealthy in both his own and his wife’s right, practiced division on the addition, making me pay for half. I recall that because it was an odd number, how to divide that final nickel was a momentary problem. This was to me a major disappointment; how right the British are to use “mean” as a synonym for what we call niggardly.

In an essay, Barzun reflected  pleasantly about the associate editors at his two book clubs: a certain Raditsa at Readers’ Subscription, and John Simon at Mid-Century, both, to his amusement, born Yugoslavs. (It makes me wonder what has become of the drolly eccentric Raditsa.)

Only two book reviews in my long career was I unable to deliver. One was a biography, The Last Pre-Raphaelite, of Edward Burne-Jones, which I read in galley form but waited for the finished book, which included all-important reproductions of his paintings demanding some comment. But by the time this finally arrived, I had forgotten much of what I wanted to say about the text.

The other book was Michael Murray’s Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind, which comprises, with comments, profuse and lengthy extracts from his writings. I tend to run penciled lines in the margins along the passages I wish to quote; here, however, the lines were near-ubiquitous, and I didn’t know where to draw the line. I struggled unsuccessfully with triage, but finally gave up in despair.

The term “polygrapher” usually denotes someone who has written too much, a more or less glorified hack. Barzun’s output—books, contributions to books, independent essays, translations—was all, however copious, of the highest quality, so that the term does not really apply. The authorial portrait of a mind boggles a reader’s mind.

So what I decided to do here is to address only Murray’s last chapter, “Late Years.” This deals with, among others, the very hefty From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, from 1500 to the Present, published in 2000, when Barzun was 92, and covering, I believe (I have never actually seen the book), some 700 pages. It features a major statement of Barzun’s firm belief that our culture has become decadent and is in unarrestable decline, but that, in an as yet unforeseeable future, a different, fresh culture would arise.

A very different Barzun from the one I knew emerges, more modest and adaptable. Concerning From Dawn, he writes his editor, “I want every opportunity to improve my work through the remarks of choice readers. And I mean comments of every sort: clumsy wording, too much on one topic, risky generality about our own time, dull stuff—the lot.”

In a 2004 letter to John Lukacs, he writes, “If I did let go . . . I would exceed all bounds and be put down as a mad professor, fit only to associate with helpless students. . . . I long ago learned to curb the spontaneous Ciceronian invective I might enjoy discharging from time to time.” There are gems in these late letters, as, for instance, when he lectures the language guru William Safire about the difference between a ship that is moored, and one that is merely docked. Heaven only knows how he came by such nautical intelligence.

There are charming aperçus.  “We live longer, it is true, but often without much enjoyment of old age.” Or: “One should not live to so advanced an age. One tends to become indifferent about—manifestations of good and evil in the world, for example, or the obligations . . . incurred when people ask something of one.” Or take this observation: “I think that in the 19th century and much of the 20th it was quite normal for gentlemen . . . not to talk about the ladies they took an interest in, epistolary or amorous or even marital as distinct from amorous. I get the impression, from letters and biographies, that to discuss or even mention a new ‘interest’ would be indelicate, for if precisely specified it could sound egotistical, even boastful, and if left vague, would lead to regrettable speculation.” How wonderful from a man 94 years old.

“I keep thinking that I’ve been enormously lucky,” he writes, and avers that he has no regrets about his life choices, even though becoming an academic was “a kind of Why not? Instead of a Yes, by all means.”

He is certainly right about our dumbed-down age, and that a dégringolade (a French word signifying a catastrophic downward hurtling) is taking place. May he also be right about the better future, which, to be sure, not even a child just born and living to be 104 will necessarily live to see. But hope and striving for it are not small potatoes either, and in this disciple of William James and Bernard Shaw they are always there.           

Sunday, October 28, 2012


As I have often said and sometimes written, the history of art extends from Anonymous to Untitled, from when only the work mattered to where only the name in the signature does.

What reminds me of this is a reproduction in the New York Times (10/16/12) of an untitled painting by Franz Kline, which, at the forthcoming auction, “is expected to bring $20 million to $30 million” and make me sick to my stomach. I recall a time, long ago, when Kline yelled at me at a party, “You are full of shit!”, and I replied, “Maybe, but at least I don’t smear it on canvas and peddle it as art.”

Art today is the result of a tacit conspiracy among artists, art historians, art critics, art dealers, nabobs who don’t know what to do with their money, and all the people who don’t know anything about art. And why shouldn’t it fetch that much when the article about the Kline painting notes that one by Clyfford Still, resonantly entitled “1949-A-No. 1” went for $61.7 million? Even Clyfford with a Y should raise a cautionary eyebrow.

I have always had my problems with abstract, or nonrepresentational, art, though realizing that when Tom Wolfe published The Painted Word he was, and still is, reviled as a philistine. The Still painting, not to be confused with a still life, is described as “a canvas of thick, jagged brushstrokes in deep reds and black,” perhaps indicating that nonsense in two colors is worth twice as much as another, like the Kline, in just one.

It ought to be evident that when painting was solely representational, even if skewed by an eccentric point of view or offering a dream vision of fantasy beings, or indulging in grotesque caricature, it still had some bearing on reality.

But the moment that art becomes pure abstraction—the honorific by which daubs, drippings, squiggles, gallimaufries are tendentiously labeled—what standards can apply? Preponderant difference, i.e., novelty. So it is that with the arrival of new mediums such as excrement and urine joining the more conventional (not to say outmoded) ones of oil, watercolor, tempera, charcoal and such, my retort to Franz Kline would have lost its sting.

Yet there is something unsettling about “new” becoming a synonym for “good,” and “different” tantamount to “worthy.” Of course, differences differ in degree of what, for lack of a better word, may be termed legitimacy. A Pontuormo differs from a Titian, a Cezanne differs from a Goya, and a Rothko differs from a Kline—though in that particular case I wouldn’t give two cents for either. Still, a cunning art critic could read something out of or into a Rothko that even he or she couldn’t honorably out of a Kline.

The problem for most arts is that so very much has already been done in them, propelling more recent practitioners into horrible distortions, obscure byways, or downright dead ends. This is true also in music, otherwise we would have been spared Stockhausen, Cage, Glass and their likes. This despite the fact that major talents can still find their own valid ways without lapsing into cacophony. I suspect that Thomas Adès can do it, though I haven’t heard enough of his work.

But back to the fine arts. Architecture, arguably one of them, still leaves room for justifiable novelty. In painting, however, the road is all but closed also by extensive, easily available reproductions by photography and widely diffused magazines and books with decent illustrations. The time when the only way to experience a painting was to seek it out for yourself in person is long gone. And once seen in good reproduction it remains, if worthy, duly remembered.

Then what about literature, which still has abundant openings left? Memory has much to do with it. Unlike a painting or statue, a work of literature, other than some poems, does not stay in clear recollection. A novel we read in college, say, will stick in general outline, but not in the details of style, hence seeming novelty can thrive. The devil in the details replicated escapes detection.

And then there is the matter of what words, uniquely, can do. They can be resurrected, recombined and reinterpreted in new ways more readily than your paintings. Thus even a book read some years ago will strike us in many ways different in the rereading. And a current novel, unless a manifest imitation, even more so. Whereas any clear echo of a Schiele landscape or a Modigliani nude will be readily recognized as old hat.

So where does this leave us in the fine arts? In a pretty pickle for the most part. But still (not Still), the best will be able to affect us as new. Even the abstractions may find ways in which some shapes and shades, some juxtapositions or eliminations may significantly impress us. The only monkey wrench is that, whereas almost everyone will agree that a Botticelli woman is beautiful, even a near-consensus about a Picasso is unreachable, unless there is large-scale dishonesty or self-delusion. Which, unfortunately, there is.

One thing, though, I am fairly sure of. Be very wary of anything called “Untitled” or “1949-A-No. 1.” Unless you can sustain a lifelong lie to yourself and others, it bodes no good.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


It is an age-old question haunting some of us: What exactly is wit and what humor? Though hard to define individually, the difference between them is worth consideration and identifiable. Because whereas humor is generally appreciated, wit is unwelcome in many quarters, and probably should be avoided by those seeking universal approbation.

Representatives of humor are easy to find. They are all those safe, mostly self-mocking comics who, for my generation were exemplified by Jack Benny and Bob Hope. But even then, there were unsafe comics, such as Mort Sahl and, especially, Lenny Bruce. Basically, then, humor is cozy and is water off a duck’s back, whereas wit is coldly cutting and smarts.

It is, for example, the province of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward and satirists like Bernard Shaw, but will not needle much an audience shielded by a barrier of footlights. But in more specific, direct contact, it is apt to be wounding, perhaps not merely to its immediate butts.

Having had bestowed on me by some the double-edged honorific of being a wit, I thought I might learn something from reviewing my own favorite sallies and their social implication, if any. Often, but by no means always, they involve puns. Take, for example, my remark at a gathering in which the then sensational marriage of Japan’s crown prince Akihito to a commoner was discussed. Someone pointed out that he had impregnated her, and was thus honor bound to legalize it. “Ah so, “ I said, “it was a shogun wedding.”

Another time, a bunch of us were watching a TV show about Judy Garland. There was wonder about her real name, which someone noted was Frances Gumm. So what sort of a name was Gumm, someone else asked. I volunteered; “Chewish.” But whether or not such remarks were cutting, only an antipodal prince and a dead star could have taken umbrage had they present.

But now what about the following? An acquaintance of mine returned from England, where she had been an unpaid assistant to a friend of mine, the drama and film critic Alan Brien. She thought Alan had to be a closet homosexual, because his frequent accusation that the reviewees were secretly gay, had to be a case of projection. “Not necessarily,” I replied; “not all anti-Semites are Jewish.” This could have been offensive to some Jews, but all my Jewish friends happily found it amusing.

Wit can boomerang on its perpetrator. Once, long ago, I applied for a job as translator at the United Nations, and chafed at a seemingly unneeded lengthy written questionnaire. In one rubric about what office equipment one was able to use, after the obvious specified ones came the question: “Others.” Wearily, I responded, “Pencil sharpener.” This, from a humorless examiner who had circled it with enough blue pencil to provide mascara for a dozen movie stars, elicited a severe oral reprimand and, of course, disqualification.

Wit may also have done me harm in the blue book of a final examination in a Harvard philosophy course. T. S. Eliot had been one of the assignments, and hating him as I did then, I considered his inclusion among philosophers inappropriate. So I wrote: “When the great, witty French writer Anatole France died, an obituarist in Le Temps began: ‘We are sad to announce the death of Anatole, who was France.’ I am looking forward to an obituary beginning, ‘We are pleased to announce the death of Eliot, who was T.S.’” In case you are puzzled, T.S., in those more proper times, stood for Tough Shit.

But what about wit in a review, where it might really matter? As, for instance, in my book review of an anthology of poetry, where I wrote, “Robert Creeley’s poems have two main characteristics. 1) they are short; 2) they are not short enough.” This, to be sure, could do little damage, even to Creeley. What, however, about a theater review? Take one of my favorite ones from New York magazine, of the revival of “Private Lives” with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I reproduce the opening paragraph.

“Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” was one of the most coruscating comedies in the English language, and will be so again starting July 18, or whenever Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are through playing it. Actually, that’s not what they’re really playing. Miss Taylor is, all too palpably, repeating her imperious, dying millionairess, Mrs. Goforth, from ‘Boom!’, Joseph Losey’s even more dreadful movie version of ‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.’ What Burton is doing is less clear; it would seem to be some combination of a robot from Capek’s “R.U.R.”, an impression of Terry-Thomas as a shell-shocked colonel in an Ealing comedy, and blind Captain Cat in ‘Under Milk Wood,’ which, being a radio play, requires little movement and less facial expression. The celebrated star couple, a mini-constellation, are both on stage at the Lunt-Fontanne (what, alas, is in a name?) Theater, but they are not in the same play and not playing opposite but against, if not past, each other.”

If you want to read the rest, it appears in my book John Simon on Theater. Yet it would have been really damaging only if it had appeared in the New York Times, the only place where a review can affect not only egos, but also the box office. Let me, however, quote from a review by my favorite drama critic, Kenneth Tynan, in a publication that really mattered, of a production of “Titus Andronicus.” He wrote: “As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.”                                                                                                                                                    

And how about this from Tynan, concerning the author of “Playboy of the Western World”? He wrote, “Synge seldom lets a simple, declarative sentence alone. To its tail there must be pinned some such trailing tin can of verbiage as—to improvise an example—‘the way you’d be roaring and moiling in the lug of a Kilkenny ditch and she with a shift on her would destroy a man entirely, I’m thinking, and him staring till the eyes would be lepping surely from the holes in his head.’” This, ladies and gentlemen, is wit of genius.

Still, since the French are said to be the absolute masters of wit, let me quote a couple of examples. The superb playwright, scenarist, director and actor Sacha Guitry once remarked to one of his several actress wives. “Cherie, I’m wondering if you don’t play too great a role in your life.” Similarly, his father, the celebrated actor Lucien Guitry, once responded to a crashing bore who pleaded “I speak as I think” with “Yes, but much more often.”

The brilliant French also coined the phrase “esprit d’escalier” (staircase wit), for a clever retort that occurs to you too late. This may have been the case at a symposium at the Telluride Festival, where someone asked me what I thought of the state of film criticism. I answered, “There ought to be an intelligence test for aspiring film critics. Not a very tough one, which most of them would flunk, but one just enough to eliminate 95% of the junk we get to read.” At this, Roger Ebert exclaimed, “John, that is the dumbest thing I ever heard you say. It means that only you should be allowed to write film criticism.” To which, I think I may have responded (or at any rate should have), “Roger, I said 95, not 99 percent. You have just flunked the mathematics part of the test." 
Some of the best wit, to be sure, is unprintable. In Budapest, two famous male classical music personages who were lovers had a falling out that lasted for years before they got together again. The town’s wits murmured that the pair must have said, “Let’s start all over again from back.” This works better in Hungarian, where the same single word can also mean from the end.

Well, one thing is certain, a witty criticism of, say, an actor in America is bound to be reprehended. Robert Frost could just as well have written, “Something there is that doesn’t love a critic.” The poem could have ended, “Good reviews, or at least unwitty ones, make good neighbors.”

Friday, September 14, 2012


Guillaume Apollinaire, one of the few great poets who were also charming, has a delightful book of essays, Le Flaneur des deux rives (The Stroller Through Paris), about his walks through the quarters on both sides of the Seine. He meets a library buff, a chap who has sampled libraries all over the world.

One such was the St. Petersburg Library, where “one could see young girls (gamines) age twelve who were reading Schopenhauer.” If this is so—and why not, if even the fancy stripper in Pal Joey thinks of Schopenhauer while she works—it is true immortality: to be read ages after your death by twelve-year-old girls (note the plural); there surely can be no greater proof of undying fame.

Unfortunately, though, this is not the kind of immortality the nonphilosophical majority of us seek—the kind that works for everyone else except for the dead immortal. We want immortality for us ordinary folk, and we want it to be physical--to defeat death.

That means those of us who might take John Donne literally: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally,/ And Death shall be no more: Death thou shalt die.” A promise not just from Donne, but also, more importantly. from almost all existing religions, which affirm some kind of Paradise. But where exactly is that Heaven located? Formerly, one could believe it to be somewhere in the heavens above. But now that the skies have been duly crisscrossed, and no Heaven found, isn’t it surprising that otherwise perfectly intelligent people believe in it? Or, for that matter, now that we know the interior of the Earth, that there should still be belief in Hell. Quite aside from the fact that the Earth is far too small a place to contain all those dead who would have headed for its insides.

And yet there have been people like T. S. Eliot, for example, who, despite a colossal intellect, have swallowed Christianity whole, ergo, whether or not he discussed it, belief in Heaven and Hell. Even as smart a man as Bill Buckley affirmed that he could not live without his firm belief of reuniting with his predeceased wife. I am less surprised when an Argentine tennis player, having won a set, crosses himself and looks to heaven even on an indoor court. And we all know the footballer who kneels and thanks Christ after a touchdown, as if Jesus had nothing better to do than help him win.

Then there are all those brave people who assert that they are not afraid of death, only of protracted dying. In other words, eternal sleep is no problem, only the discomfort of prolonged insomnia preceding it. Believe them as much as you do actors who claim never to read their reviews. A vast majority wants to go on living physically, no matter how precariously or where, even if their religion doesn’t promise them sex with 72 virgins in the afterlife. This even though sex with one virgin can spell trouble.

A writer as brilliant as Julian Barnes writes a whole book about how we shouldn’t fear death, although almost every page of that book testifies to the opposite. To my knowledge, only one religion, Judaism, doesn’t make paradisiac promises—well, maybe also Unitarianism, if indeed that qualifies as a religion.

To be sure, nobody said that atheism comes cheap. I myself cannot help envying the comforts of belief in Heaven, even by those who could barely rate Purgatory. These are people who have no need for either John Donne or Julian Barnes, and count on the kind of wings that cannot crash by colliding with a flock of birds.

What consolation is there for atheists? Or, to quote the aforementioned Eliot, after such knowledge, what forgiveness? I suppose a feeling, earned or unearned, of superiority. Condescension is not without its questionable satisfaction: “You poor fellow, you actually believe you are going to Heaven? And the moon, I assume, is made of green cheese?” (As if anyone wanted his cheese green.) But wouldn’t one trade superiority for faith, if only one were capable of the Pascalian gamble?

And what about those good souls who believe that having children is a form of immortality? Lots of luck to them when they wake up—or, rather, don’t—in their coffins. Think of the dead Heraclitus in William Cory’s famous poem, concluding: “Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;/ For death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.” That may be good enough immortality for Cory and Callimachus, on whose poem Cory’s is based, but hardly for Heraclitus. And what about those of us who have no children or nightingales, not so much as a canary?

The best we can come up with is an enlightened hedonism—having lived life to the fullest. Or else its opposite, stoicism, poohpoohing the pleasures of life. Yet I am not sure whether even Epicurus or Epictetus—Marcus Aurelius at least had his imperial privileges—made it to full fearless happiness, and death be damned. So what can we lesser ones aspire to? The good life and peaceful death are only the snake scotch’d, not kill’d. Possibly the best way is to expire on top of a sexy woman just after orgasm—the John Garfield and Nelson Rockefeller way, and the obverse, of course, for a woman. Not for nothing did we learn in our lit. courses that for the Elizabethans “to die” meant both death and orgasm. Coming and going, as it were. But what of all that long, unorgasmic time before?

Consider the modus operandi of two wonderful writers, Jules Renard and Peter Altenberg, skeptical Frenchman and euphoric Austrian. Renard, in what is surely one of the greatest journals ever kept, wrote in 1898: “Your head is bizarre, carved in big strokes of the knife, like that of geniuses. Your brow brightens like that of Socrates. By way of phrenology, you remind us of Cromwell, Napoleon and so many others, and yet you will be nothing.” And, likewise about himself: “You will be nothing. You understand the greatest poets, the most profound prose writers, but, though you pretend that to understand is to equal, you will be as comparable to them as a minuscule dwarf can be to the giants.”

The superb humorist Altenberg wrote in 1901: “I was nothing, I am nothing, I will be nothing. But I live out my life in freedom and allow noble and compassionate persons to participate in the adventures of that inner freedom in that I commit it, in the most compact form, to paper. I am poor, but I myself. The man without concessions. What does that get you? 100 guilders a month and a few ardent fans. Well, those I have! My life is dedicated to the unheard-of enthusiasm for God’s greatest art work, the female body.”

And he goes on about the nudes with which he has papered the walls of his poor little room, and the inscriptions under them, such as “Beauty is Virtue.” And he concludes with the joy of waking up gazing at this “sacred magnificence,” which reconciles him to the neediness and burdens of existence.

So there you have it. The stoic, skeptic or cynic Renard (though even he relished beautiful women), and the exultant hedonist Altenberg. They may have had the antidote for mortality. Or maybe not.

Friday, August 31, 2012


Reading the other day the simultaneous obituaries of Phyllis Diller and Tony Scott has been revelatory. They turned out to be complementary articles serving as bookends for the taste of America or, if you prefer, its psyche.

Note some emerging deductions. Phyllis Diller’s success was based on self-mockery, whereas film director Scott’s was founded on male heroics that, against all odds, led to triumph. Two almost ironclad formulas, both based on lies.

Let’s start with Diller, i.e., ladies first, although her public image was that of a beleaguered average woman, not exactly a lady. As the New York Times obituary made clear, she underwent numerous surgeries to make herself look younger and better, but then exerted almost as much effort, e.g., her explosive Slovenly Peter hair, to make herself look ridiculous, which was the title of the parodic song (Eartha Kitt’s “Monotonous”) that more or less launched her career.

The idea was not to look better than the typical housewife, but, if anything, worse. That way female drudges viewing her would not be envious, as of the sexy Hollywood starlets, but pleasurably patronizing. “I look better than she does, and if only I bothered, which thank God I don’t, I could have the same career.” I firmly believe that looking worse than average helped also the success, among others, of Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli.

Sure, a Hedy Lamarr or Rita Hayworth made it on the sexy allure that secured the male vote. But the probably even more numerous female vote was grabbed by “I don’t envy anyone less attractive than me,” and so becoming reconciled to remaining a cook and child-bearer in prosaic households from coast to coast. Not longing or striving for cinematic stardom—or any other kind—becomes a virtue to be cherished.

But all the polymorphous surgery that Diller underwent does not negate my theory. Underneath the mask of less than ordinariness, it pays to be as desirable as possible so as to please a husband or lover. It is what really allows you to make a clown of yourself: the secret knowledge of being actually much superior to your image. It is rather like the principle by which an actor playing King Lear needs to be younger and stronger than the seeming dotard he portrays. Diller’s obit calls attention to, among other things, her good figure and cosmetically embellished nose.

So much for female fantasy; now what about the male counterpart? Well, that’s where the lone good man, who may or may not be also handsome, wins out against all odds, archetypically in a film such as “High Noon,” where Gary Cooper triumphs not only over assorted villains, but even over the total respectable citizenry that cravenly refuses to lend him a hand.

Yes, you say, but Cooper was also handsome. True, but not in the glamour-guy manner of a Robert Taylor or Tyrone Power, or even a sexy Clark Gable, humanized by his Obama ears. It was Cooper’s rugged virility and moral courage that clearly mattered more than sex appeal. Consider that even such an unsightly actor as Ernest Borgnine could find a not unpresentable female mate. You might even be as underprivileged as a Sammy Davis Jr. or an Anthony Quinn (remember his Mexican mother) and overcome being black or Hispanic.

Consider now Tony Scott’s favorite action hero, Tom Cruise. True, he looks good, but all you need is a picture of him and his wife, Katie Holmes, to see how much shorter he is. Besides, his real family name was Mapother, which could make anyone feel inferior. Anyway, more power to shorties.

But what about the glamorous Tony Curtis? Enough people knew that his real name was Bernard Schwartz, so more power to Jewish men. For that matter, no one could look more Jewish than Dustin Hoffman, who, on top of that, tends to come off as a smartass, and still ends up on top—even in female drag.

So here are keys to success for underachieving exteriors, male and female. Granted that they are not the only ones, and that they are not infallible. Ambition is also needed, and sticktoitiveness, some luck, and, most likely, impudence. But not everyone can claim those, and so for many people, perhaps most, the formula doesn’t work—proves a lie.

Do not, however, for all that, disregard it. It also thrives on mediocrity, which is the unfortunate downside of democracy. Just look at our successful politicians.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Most things are either good or bad, but dreams, with fearful symmetry, manage to be both good and bad. Just about everyone has had good and bad ones, and since about a third of our days is spent on dream-producing sleep, dreams are worth a bit of scrutiny.

I wonder whether many can claim, as my wife does, waking up with total oblivion of having dreamt anything. That would seem to reduce such a large part of life to something rather wasteful. Couldn’t we just lie in bed or in a hammock and harbor pleasant daydreams for a couple of hours? Couldn’t reverie replace dream?

To be sure, we dream at our risk. Seldom are we more jubilant than when we wake up from a truly nasty nightmare. This could be anything from being stuck in some unknown, threatening part of town with the way home lost, to a devilishly unpleasant situation incurred by having done or said something unpardonable.

On the other hand, how depressing to wake up from winning a coveted prize, having enjoyed perfect sex, or accomplishing some other resounding success, to mere indifferent reality. It’s almost as bad as losing one’s wallet.

I doubt whether many of us share Hamlet’s fear of bad dreams tormenting us after our demise; compared to global warming, hellfire seems like much less of a menace. A more serious problem may be what’s implied in the epigraph to Yeats’s 1914 collection of poems, “In Dreams Begins Responsibility.” Aside from anything else, this was responsible for an entire collection of Delmore Schwartz’s poems, with a slight variant of that for title.

Responsibility to what or to whom? Yeats attributes the saying to an “Old Play.” But as a note to the putatively definitive edition of Yeats’s works (Macmillan, 1989) has it, “The source . . . has not yet been traced: it may well have been written by Yeats, possibly with the assistance of Ezra Pound.” If no source could be found in 75 years, it stands to reason that there is none. I fully believe that it is the concoction of those young tricksters Willy and Ez, and that the chief responsibility for, if not to it, is the Freudian id, even if Freud himself has become suspect nowadays.

Artists, in a roundabout way, are responsible to dreams. None more so than the lusty Renaissance friar Francesco Colonna, the more than likely author of that wonderful incunabulum Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published in 1499 by the great Venetian house of Aldus Manutius. An article in the Times of May 26, 2004, by Dinitia Smith, begins, “It has been called the most beautiful book in the world, and the most unreadable. Its hero has sex with buildings. It also has a nearly unpronounceable title . . . [which] can be translated as ‘the struggle for love in a dream.’” Or, alternatively, “the strife of love in a dream.” There are about 260 copies in existence, one of them in the Princeton library. Its very illustrations, 174 woodcuts, are an utter delight. But the text is a problem.

The entire long book is a dream, containing further dreams within dreams. It is the story of one Poliphilo, who dreams of his beloved, the nymph Polia, and journeys in constant search of the elusive one. Well, not entirely constant, for Poliphilo may be translated both as lover of Polia and lover of many. He adores fulsomely also architecture, sculptures, gardens, goldsmith’s works, inscriptions on tombstones, music, pageantry, ritual, and colorful fabrics (especially when worn by nymphs). As his modern English translator, the marvelously named Joscelyn Godwin, puts it, he is in love, above all, with Antiquity.

And what language! Greek, Latin, and Italian, with a sprinkling of Hebrew and Arabic. No wonder that the first complete English translation, by the valiant Godwin, did not appear until 1999. As exquisitely published (I own it) by Thames & Hudson in smaller format than the original, it comes to 476 pages with all the illustrations, helpful appendices, plus ten excellent pages of introduction. Erotic as all get-out, but, alas, a mere dream.

A Times article of July 24, 2012, by Jennifer Schuessler, reports on a session at the Rare Books School of the University of Virginia, where bibliophiles shouted out in triumph, “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499!” As the article tells us, if the school had a football team, that might be its rallying cry. Spectacular if hard reading, it ends with Poliphilo finally snatching Polia, only to wake up from a dream.

Dreams, to be sure, have been a paramount staple of literature, at the very least since Moses in the bible.  They figure prominently in the fictions of ancient Greece and Rome, and have gone on and on ever since. One of my favorites is Arthur Schnitzler’s 1931 Traumnovelle (Dream Novella), which begat Stanley Kubrick’s unfortunate Eyes Wide Shut.

In English fiction, early examples are Langland’s Piers Plowman (boring as hell) and several delightful works by Chaucer, who derived some of them from the 13th-century French Roman de la Rose, a part of which he translated. J. A. Cuddon, in his invaluable Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, cites among major specimens Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Keats’s revised Hyperion, the Alice in Wonderland books, and remarks that Finnegans Wake “has also been taken as a kind of cosmic dream.”

On screen, dreams do not register notably—they blend in almost imperceptibly—but on stage they have an illustrious history. They are memorable as the dream ballets in various musicals, notably Agnes De Mille’s for Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Albertina Rasch’s for Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark. But they also score heavily in plays by James Barrie (especially Dear Brutus) and Philip Barry (Hotel Universe).

However, I am not trying to write a history or catalogue raisonné of onstage dreams. And I don’t want to peddle mine, for nothing is more boring than one’s dreams to other people. But let me, against my better judgment, relate one of my own.

A friend and his date join me on a visit to the New York Times. I am trying to sell an article to my editor there, David Kelly. It is about the Sokols, the Slavic version of Boy Scouts. They have a spiffy uniform and (who wouldn’t want it?) a feather in their caps. Sokol means falcon, and one of Janáček’s most wonderful works, the Sinfonietta, was composed for the Czech Sokols.

I have my canny friend with me to help effectuate the sale of what I have titled “Czeducation,” and we approach the Times modestly through the basement. We there pick up as guide a very young editor or perhaps intern, unkempt and pimply. We ascend to a kind of antechamber whose steep, towering walls suggest an expressionist drama with scenery by Gordon Craig, where others too are waiting. There is a huge, Kafkaesque portal through which we glimpse only emptiness. No trace of Kelly or any other editor.

I take a few steps in, but return hastily, pointing out that I have not yet written a word of my article. I am not even sure that the Sokols still exist—perhaps the only one is our beloved comedienne Marilyn Sokol. Never mind; I can always try to sell the idea. But no; suddenly all of us are on a sort of fun-fair train, hurtling downward. We whoosh past another doorway to the Times, labeled quizzically—what?

I wake up trying vainly to recall that curious superscription. It puts me in mind of the frustrating last sentence of the Hypnerotomachia: “I awoke and emerged with a start from my dream, saying with a sigh: ‘Farewell, then, Polia.’”

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Of all Anglophone writers only Shakespeare has been more written about than James Joyce, and Shakespeare has three-and-a-half centuries on him. Of all modern writers, not only in English, Joyce is probably the most innovative, evocative, and influential. He has had, and still has, numerous followers, some acknowledged, some not, and not a few imitators despite his inimitability. To the huge corpus of Joyceana, now add the apt biography by Gordon Bowker, titled simply James Joyce.

At nearly 600 riveting pages, it is long, but not overlong. Until now, the conceivably definitive biography was Richard Ellmann’s 1982 revision of his remarkable 1959 James Joyce. At almost 900 large, closely packed pages, it remains a cornerstone for all subsequent writings about Joyce. But thirty years since have yielded further revelations, which Bowker, experienced author of three earlier biographies (of Orwell, Durrell, and Malcolm Lowry) has made productive use of.

Bowker’s opus is not primarily a critical biography, in that it refrains from being judgmental even about such lesser efforts as Joyce’s only play, the Ibsenite Exiles, or detailed in its praise of such an early masterpiece as the story “The Dead” and the moving late poem “Ecce Puer.” It offers sufficient accounts of what Joyce’s various works are about, but is primarily interested in the particulars of the life. And what a life it was!

There are easier—which is to say shorter—approaches to Joyce. Harry Levin’s James Joyce: A Critical Introduction remains the best concise evaluation of the writer and man. For those seeking a terse account of the life, Edna O’Brien’s James Joyce will do the job. For those wishing strictly literary criticism, John Gross’s James Joyce is recommended. But for readers who want both in sufficient and up-to-date detail, nothing beats Bowker’s book published here by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and last year in England by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Outstanding about Bowker are his judiciousness and readability on top of thorough research. For more academic—or just more curious—readers there is another forte: relating every step of the way the life to the work. This makes particular sense for Joyce, an extraordinarily biographical and autobiographical fictionist. His plots rely almost exclusively on what he called his epiphanies, a term for events experienced, and conversations participated in or overheard, that lent themselves to
pungent fictional use.

So, reading Bowker, we learn again and again and usually with precise page references, how an incident was exploited in the fictions—and how a person (real name and basic biographical data) became so-and-so in the writings (fictional name and bit of plot summary). For anyone willing and able to follow up on these references, Bowker’s book becomes a paradigm of how brilliant fictional strategy works up bits of reality, how genius transfigures the givens of life.

Especially interesting in this respect is how religion and sexuality figure in Joyce’s life and work. Bowker makes clear how Joyce consciously rejected the strict Roman Catholicism in which he was brought up by family and educated by Jesuits, while instinctively still indulging in much churchgoing, ostensibly only because of enjoyment of the ritual and music involved.

Music indeed, given Joyce’s fine tenor voice, almost leading to a career in music, and love of singing and dancing, which he reveled in with the slightest excuse (parties, literary gatherings, mere dinners with friends) or even without. He could accompany his singing on the piano, and would dance with (usually male) friends in the most exuberant, almost orgiastic fashion.

And what sexuality: Joyce was both masochist and fetishist. The latter in his fixation on female underwear, often urging his wife Nora to purchase and wear sexy drawers. The former in fantasies of, and generally unheeded solicitings for, flogging by Nora, and perhaps also in using and encouraging obscene and scatological language in his letters and fictions, often asking that it be aggressively directed at himself.

Three further fascinating aspects of Joyce emerge. One is Joyce the egoist and rebel who exiles himself from an Ireland that imposed unacceptable restrictions on his ego. Thus we find him with Nora—and later their children, Giorgio and Lucia—steadily changing habitats in Italy, Switzerland, and France, mostly but not exclusively in Trieste, Zurich and Paris. An excellent—indeed fanatical—linguist, he profited from commanding the requisite foreign as well as classical languages, not to mention other, not particularly needed ones. All grist for his existential and literary mills.

Next, Joyce’s ability to acquire and maintain (despite invariable fallings out) many important and useful friendships, in spite of extreme egoistic obsession with his work and personal pursuits. Impractical in many ways, especially in his love of luxury despite minimal earnings as a writer and English teacher, Joyce found his hurtful disregard for others not preventing his living off various patrons. Or, rather, patronesses, such as the French booksellers and publishers Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, the American magazine editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and affluent ladies such as Edith Rockefeller McCormick and, above all, Harriet Shaw Weaver, who alone contributed monies that today would correspond to over a million dollars.

Thirdly, there is Joyce’s struggle for survival amid serious financial straits, sometimes even grinding poverty, whenever gifts or profuse borrowing proved unavailable. There was also the unemployability, as during a failed attempt at banking in Rome, or problems with puritanical institutions of learning, and scarcity of private pupils, though some proved slavishly devoted and variously generous.

Bowker is almost too zealous in reporting every aspect of Joyce’s finances, very often gravely limited by the obtuseness or cowardice of publishers, the almost inconceivable scrutiny and frustration by all sorts of censorship, real or merely putative, and terrible health handicaps, ranging from poor eyesight verging on blindness to raging stomach disorders.

Bowker has further strengths, such as a dry wit that complements Joyce’s own, frequently and hilariously quoted. Also keen psychological insight into such matters as Joyce’s stupendous love-hate for his native Dublin—actually more love than hate, albeit not reciprocated until very late in his life, which ended prematurely just short of his 59th birthday.

He is also scrupulous in documenting Joyce’s tragic relationship with his gifted but demented daughter Lucia, whom he adored, protected and on whose upkeep he spent his frequently scant and desperately needed money, despite her terrifying rebuffs and even physical assaults on her mother.

But Joyce’s entire life, deftly evoked by Bowker, is heroic in his grapplings with landlords, strings of contradictory and confusing doctors, endless relocations, and often noble but exhausting excesses, such as the sixteen years spent on writing his final work, the gigantic but rebus-like antinovel Finnegans Wake. Its perennial and fascinating challenges to elucidation very nearly subvert the well-deserved fame and influence of his epochal masterpiece, Ulysses, largely “acclaimed [Bowker writes] as the greatest novel of the twentieth century.”

Only slightly offputting are Bowker’s admittedly rare lapses of grammar, easily forgivable among so many virtues. I conclude quoting part of a long, characteristic paragraph, displaying not only delightful fluency, but also the fine ability to summarize, a sovereign gift in a biographer.

“[Joyce] passed through phases of Jesuitical piety, Parnellite nationalism, anti-bourgois and anticlerical rebellion, socialism, intellectual aloofness and Ibsenite devotion. He was altar boy, classroom joker, young know-all, great operatic tenor manqué, a carousing ‘medics’ pal,’ a patron of brothels, poete maudit, exile, prurient lover, writer of licentious letters, ‘undiscovered genius,’ fond father, failed businessman, temporary bank clerk, original language teacher, eccentric dancer, blind Dante, fighter against censorship and literary piracy, lyrical poet, opera buff,  brave experimental writer of prodigious virtuosity and, finally, ‘acclaimed genius.’ But he was other things, too.”

Bowker neatly encapsulates those other things as well, but I don’t want to overwhelm you, though I must mention Joyce’s “help [to] those who were threatened with Nazi persecution.” Sundry plays and films have been based on Joyce’s writings, understandably without doing full justice to them. What might be interesting would be a movie about this astonishing life, if only a great enough cineast and actor could be found. Meanwhile I warmly suggest your reading Bowker’s spellbinding biography.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Memory is so much a part of us that it might as well be an organ, like the lungs or the heart. It is as much relied upon as they, equally unconsciously and, when needed, spontaneously. And when is it not needed?

We have to remember to turn off the light when we leave home. We have to remember which one from a bunch of keys opens what. We must not forget the umbrella left under our theater seat. Such things may be as natural as breathing, but breathing does not require remembering as the other things do.

When memory works for us, we feel no gratitude; but when it fails us, how furious we become. Imagine not remembering to pull up the chair when about to sit down at table; yet inconceivable as it seems, haven’t we done so? And that is how embar-rassing all kinds of failure of memory can be.

What keeps memory so persistently in my own mind is awareness of the lack of it. At age 87, I suppose I am entitled to lapses of memory, but doesn’t it seem unpardonable not to remember why I went from one room to the next, to forget something within seconds? Not to remember who that person is who accosts me with intimate knowledge of me? Not to have remembered an important item on my shopping list?

I especially envy people who remember whole poems, lots of poems. They make for a wonderfully portable library we can refer to on all sorts of occasions. Not for nothing were schoolchildren, in the days when education still mattered, made to memorize poems. Why, even on an exam in a Milton course at Harvard, one could score just by writing down a few verses from memory. (I couldn’t. But then I didn’t care for Milton.)

Memory, though, can be a solace: remembering good things from your past. But is that an unequivocal good? Or was Dante right with “Nessun maggior dolore/ Che ricordarsi del tempo felice/Nella miseria,” which Longfellow translated as “There is no greater sorrow/ Than to be mindful of the happy time/ In misery.” But, happy or not, how often we encounter memory in everyday speech, reminders—memorials—of its importance.

Just think: memo pads, memoirs, Memorial Day, memorabilia, memorization, time immemorial, within living memory, and so many other words or phrases. And, somewhat less often, from the Greek, mnemonic and mnemonics. The Latin memoria is obviously present in Latin-derived, Romance languages, as in French, mémoire. But also, as in English, and other kinds of languages. Take the German, Memoire and memorieren. Take the Hungarian, where the prevalent term for memory is emlékezet, but there is also the more intense memória, specially in the phrase tökéletes memória, total recall.

Too much memory, granted, can become a burden. The great writer Jorge Luis Borges has a story, “Funes the Memorious,” about Ireneo Funes, a fellow who remembers absolutely everything. We read, among other things, “Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it.” And again: “He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho.” No wonder the poor creature could hardly sleep and died young.

Borges himself was no slouch when it came to memory. One of the world’s greatest polymaths, his writings unostentatiously display reading and erudition hard to imagine, let alone equal. Not without interest here is the epigraph in English (which he spoke fluently) from Francis Bacon’s Essays: “Solomon saith: There is no new thing upon the earth. So that as Plato had an imagination that all knowledge was but remembrance, so Solomon gives his sentence that all novelty is but oblivion.”

Well, almost everything has its seductive antithesis, and so too has memory. The marvelous poet Guillaume Apollinaire has written in praise of oblivion, “Où est le Christophe Colomb à qui l’on devra l’oubli d’un continent?” (Where is the Columbus to whom we’ll owe the oblivion of a continent?) And with what melodious eloquence Swinburne has written, “But the best and the worst of this is/ That neither is most to blame/ If you have forgotten my kisses/ And I have forgotten your name.” This is so good as to make the solecism “most” for “more” entirely forgivable.

Nevertheless, memoria, Mnemosyne of the Greeks, is a goddess. Let me quote the delightful Dr. Lempriere’s invaluable Classical Dictionary: “Mnemosyne, a daughter of Coelus and Terra, mother of the nine Muses by Jupiter, who assumed the form of a shepherd to enjoy her company. The word Mnemosyne signifies memory, and therefore the poets have rightly called memory the mother of the Muses, because it is to that mental endowment that mankind are indebted for their progress in science.” Nicely put by the Reverend Lempriere (especially that very Victorian “enjoy her company”). Yet only one of the Muses was the inspirer of science, Urania, the Muse of astronomy. The eight others were the patronesses of history, various kinds of poetry, music, drama and dance.

What is so wise about this myth is that it proclaims the quasi-divine origin and status of the arts, history, and science, and that it recognizes the importance of memory in their creation. For they are all based, at least in part, on memory: summoned-up feeling, memorialized experience, a recalled something or other.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about memory is that, though we may call upon it, it just as likely seeks us out on its own, pleasantly, sadly, wondrously. As the Serbian poet Milan Rakić put it, “When the heart cries out, thought is to blame.” That thought, more often than not, is the voice of memory, happy, unhappy, or just surprising.

I myself am a bit surprised by the particular choices in bits of poetry my memory has made, and that I have remembered, with rhyme in most cases, but for no obvious reason. Well, yes, there is a reason in some cases, as with that great concluding line of The Divine Comedy, that almost justifies slogging through the Paradiso: “L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle” (the Love that moves the sun and the other stars), which remarkably loses almost nothing in translation.

But why, from all of Apollinaire’s marvels, remember “Ce lourd secret que tu quémandes” (this heavy secret that you beg for), which haunts me more stubbornly than I can comprehend. In context, it refers to the lover’s secret self, for whose disclosure even the beloved must beg. But I don’t remember the context, merely it. It may have to do with the music of this line of verse, the cunning sequence of vowel sounds, ending in the melancholy nasal “an” and the ghostly mute “e.” Also the echo effect between ce and que and the onomatopeic lourd.

More comprehensible is the staying power of a quatrain from Rilke:

            Befriedigungen ungezählter Jahre
            Sind in der Luft. Voll Blumen liegt dein Hut
            Und ein Geruch aus deinem reinen Haare
            Mischt sich mit Welt, als wäre alles gut.

And in sadly prosaic translation:

            Appeasements of innumerable years
            Are in the air. Your hat lies full of flowers
            And a scent from your pure hair
            Mingles with [the] world as if all were well.

Here there is no question of the beauty and power of the verse. There is, first, the situation. Rilke is writing a poem to Marthe Hennebert, a tearful working girl he crossed in a Paris street. He consoled her and became her lover. I imagine them sitting on grass in a setting not unlike Seurat’s Grande Jatte. The girl’s hat is full of flowers, picked or bought, and their scent, the German says, “mingles with world,” where the German, like English, would expect an article before the noun. Plain “Welt,” however, becomes not the whole world, but something both more intimate and transcendent: part of the surroundings, nature, something greater thus made more immediate.

Then there is the verse, with its music. First, the rhyme scheme: the feminine “Jahre” and “Haare” neatly alternating with the masculine, tonally different, “Hut” and “gut.” There is piquancy in such different vowel sounds, the floating disyllables arrested by anchoring monosyllables.  There is the wonderfully polysyllabic “Befriedigungen” with its dying fall, subsiding from five syllables to the quadrisyllabic “ungezählter,” thence to the two syllables of “Jahre,” followed in the next verse by several monosyllables. There is also a kind of arpeggio in the four u’s, progressing from “Geruch” to the culminating “Hut.” There is the lovely inner rhyme of “deinem reinen,” the bright diphthongs flowing into the dark “Haare.” And there is the delicate assonance in “mischt sich mit,” followed by the alliteration of “Welt” and “wäre.”

More beautiful yet, perhaps, and immensely moving, is he drama of the final verse. Here, in a scene of quasi-pastoral serenity and intimate charm, surely we can expect God to be in his heaven and all well with the world. But no! “Als wäre alles gut”—a melancholy “as if all were well.” For, after all, what is perfect? The splendor is only of the moment, and nothing lasts.

On account of these bits of Apollinaire, Swinburne, Dante and Rilke, I remain deeply beholden to memory, memoria, Mnemosyne. She is truly a goddess.